Altamont to adopt flat $2.5M budget for next year — sewer customers face hike

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

While Altamont’s budget for 2021-22 is down slightly from this year, the village’s sewer customers are looking at having to foot the bill for upgrades.

ALTAMONT — The board of trustees on Tuesday unanimously adopted a $2.46 million spending plan for next year that is down about $6,400 from this year’s budget. 

The tax rate for 2021-22 will be the same as this year: $1.97 per $1,000 of assessed value. For the second year in a row, the village will levy approximately $300,100 in property taxes, which is about $8,000 below the state-set levy limit.

And while property owners won’t see a tax-rate hike next year, hundreds will be subjected to an increase in the $45 twice-a-year fee that helps pay for upgrades to the sewer plant.

The budget adopted by trustees is over $30,000 less than what was proposed just two months ago, which is largely due to big-ticket items the village had been carrying on its balance sheet either finally getting the go-ahead or just receiving less funding than in years’ past.

The $50,000 Crounse House budget-line item was taken out of the 2021-22 spending plan because the village anticipates it will have a deal in place to tear down the entire structure before the end of this fiscal year.

The firehouse-facade repair line was reduced by $15,000, leaving $120,000, which is a cost the village has been carrying on its books since at least 2018-19 — the estimates of the facade repairs have come in higher than originally expected, so, rather than doing the entire project all at once, one idea is that the repairs may be done in phases.


Reorganizational meeting

Tuesday doubled as the Altamont’s reorganizational meeting.

Mayor Kerry Dineen, Trustee John Scally, and new Trustee Tresa Matulewicz were administered their oaths of office by Justice James Greene, who earlier in the meeting had been sworn in by Dineen for his second four-year term.

None of the four faced opposition in the village’s March election.

Dean Whalen, after 16 years as a trustee, had earlier declined to run for a fifth four-year term on the board. Matulewicz, previously a member of the village’s zoning board of appeals, was the only candidate to submit a petition to fill Whalen’s seat.

Gary Goss, the zoning board alternate, was named as Matulewicz’s replacement, receiving a five-year appointment to the board. 

Planning board member John Hukey, who was up for another five-year appointment, decided instead to step down, “because he had other things going on,” Dineen said. Simon Litten, the board’s alternate member, was appointed to fill Hukey’s seat. 

Litten narrowly lost his bid  for trustee in 2019 in an election that revolved around the rezone of a Stewart’s-owned property from residential to commercial, a move that Litten opposed

And Kathryn Provencher, a two-decade veteran of the zoning board whose views have diverged from those of Dineen-appointed board members, received another five-year term.


Sewer funding gap

During the April 6 meeting, Dineen said, “We recognize that we are probably going to have to raise our debt service or some other way raise revenue for the sewer fund this summer. We’re going to have to have a public hearing and look at the scenarios around that. So, that is something that came out of looking at this budget — we’re not in trouble or anything like that — but it is an area that needs attention, again, down the road, future.”

The plant was supposed to save the village money but has shown to be “a little more expensive” than what was anticipated, which is in addition to and coupled with increases in sewer-related expenses, Dineen said.

On the revenue side of the ledger, the village has upped its expected sewer rent by nearly $100,000, from $425,850 this year to $523,090 next year.

The sewer fund is its own separate fund that, in theory, should pay for itself with the rents collected every six months. 

But the issue for Altamont is its waste-water treatment plant on Gun Club Road. The village upgraded about two-thirds of the facility within the past decade, while the remaining third is over 40 years old. And along with those improvements came $170,000 in annual outlays on the principal and interest of the bond that paid for those upgrades. As of this time last year, $2.96 million of the original $3.58 million bond was still to be paid off, which will happen in 2043

Customers are charged a mandatory twice-a-year fee of $45 to help pay down the debt, and what they are charged isn’t enough. In past years, the village’s fund balance has been used to plug an ever-widening gap between sewer fund revenues and expenditures — in the past two cycles, over $100,000 in reserve funds was used to balance the sewer budget.

At a budget workshop in March, Village Treasurer Catherine Hasbrouck had told the trustees they were going to have to increase revenue because the sewer fund doesn’t take in enough rent to cover its costs. 

Hasbrouck recommended to trustees that the fee increase be reflected in the budget to indicate what the village hoped to receive in additional sewer revenues; that way, she said, “it lowers the fund balance, [so] we’re balanced with our cash in that [budget] line.”

The increase would exist only on paper because any actual fee hike would require a public hearing.

At the end of last year, the board approved a $70,000 transfer from the general fund into the sewer fund because of a shortage. Hasbrouck told the board it wouldn’t be able to continue borrowing from the general fund to make up for the sewer-fund shortfall “for much longer, especially if you start spending for other things,” like the facade of the firehouse, which had higher-than-estimated costs.

The village has 884 sewer customers, from whom it currently collects $39,780 every six months, or $79,560 annually, in mandated sewer-plant upgrade charges to help pay off the bond. And, in next year’s budget, those customers will be on the hook for an additional $97,240 in mandatory fees. 

But Hasbrouck cautioned this week against ascribing how those mandated charges would be meted out, because a public hearing would have to be held on the increases and the board of trustees would have to vote on how charges are allocated to each customer. 

 For example, trustees could choose to spread out the increase equally to all customers, so their twice-a-year $45 fee would now be $100 every six months, or the increase could be tied to usage. 

Sewer fees are 180 percent of a customer’s April water bill and 150 percent of the October bill. For example, if a customer is using twice as much water as his or her neighbor, that means twice as much wastewater is flowing through the village’s treatment facility, so the customer using more water would be charged at a higher rate because he or she is placing more wear and tear on the village’s system than the neighbor. 

Hasbrouck said during the March meeting that the village had hoped there would be savings from operations and maintenance with the new plant and, ideally, those savings would have helped pay off the debt on the bond for the sewage-treatment plant, but that wasn’t the case. 

“It’s costing more to do the upkeep than we thought it was going to,” Trustee Nicholas Fahrenkopf said during the budget workshop. “That’s clear. It’s not like we’re trying to do anything fancy. We’re not trying to make a lot of money, [nobody’s] getting rich off of sludge removal, right?”


Federal funds

Fahrenkopf wondered if the federal money coming in from the American Rescue Plan could be used to pay off the sewer debts, but Mayor Kerry Dineen said there are limits on how those funds can be spent.

Local governments can, for example, use the federal funds to make infrastructure improvements, increase the pay of essential employees, or cover COVID-related expenses. But municipalities can’t, directly or indirectly, appear to be using the rescue dollars to make up for lost revenue. 

Altamont will receive federal funding, but those “amounts are not included in the breakdown because of the complications of calculating those amounts until a process is put in place to divvy up funds between overlapping governments,” according to Senator Chuck Schumer’s summary of the rescue aid headed to New York State municipalities.

Located wholly within the town of Guilderland, which is due to receive $3.92 million, the village of Altamont is due to receive a cut of the town’s nearly $4-million haul.

According to the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials, so-called non-entitlement municipalities are to receive $109.693 per person, based on the Census Bureau’s 2019 estimated population of the village, 1,669 — so, Altamont could be receiving about $183,000, by NYCOM’s account. 

The sewer budget for next year totals about $565,400 of which about $523,000 is expected to be covered by rents, with money from the fund balance making up the remaining $26,000. This is a contrast from just a month ago, when the village’s tentative budget called for appropriating about $123,500 from reserves to make up the difference.


Water budget

Altamont’s water budget for next year totals about $416,000 of which about $325,000 is covered by metered water sales, with about $40,000 from the water-fund balance to cover the difference. 

In contrast with the village’s sewers, Hasbrouck said during the March hearing, “The water fund, I think, is OK, as we have the logging coming in and we also have the [cell] towers that are bringing in about $18,000 [a year] in income, so I think we’ll be able to get by.

At the end of last year, the board authorized the mayor to sign an agreement with a Greene County company, allowing it to harvest timber at the 303-acre village-owned Altamont Reservoir in Knox. The deal, the board was told, would yield a minimum of $40,000 to $50,000 in revenue for the water fund. 

Altamont has 776 in-village water customers, and 273 out-of-village water customers who pay a higher rate for service; additionally, the board at its March 2 meeting, amended the village code, increasing the cost for new water customers outside the village to connect to the system, from $3,000 to $7,000.

Water customers are also paying off a bond on new wells that were dug sometime around 2007 — they are charged $25 twice a year to lower the approximately $715,000 in debt; the bond is due to be paid off in 2027.


The rest of the budget

The village budget is broken into three funds: general, water, and sewer.

At $1.48 million, the general fund is the largest.

The general-fund balance is “OK,” Hasbrouck said at the budget hearing, explaining, “It showed we had $329,000 at the end of last year.”

The village in February still had $50,000 allocated for 2021-22 to demolish the Crounse House, the cost of which it is splitting 50-50 with the town of Guilderland, which co-owns the property. But, between the two budget hearings, the structure had apparently been condemned, which will make demolition quicker and less expensive because the entire structure can be torn down rather than having to remove the asbestos before taking down the building. 

The village is also requesting a variance from the state Department of Labor that will allow a contractor to demolish the entire structure and ship it off to a landfill instead of having to pick it clean first. 

The village’s largest general fund expenditures for next year are expected to be:

— Public safety, including police and fire, about $315,000. 

Among the few noticeable line-item increases in next year’s budget are the contributions made by Altamont to the state retirement fund for village’s part-time police force and its volunteer firefighters, costs which are set to increase by close to 20 percent, from about $31,000 to about $37,000;

— General government support, totaling about $297,500.

This includes, among other things, elected official salaries and the partially-allocated salaries of the village treasurer and clerk as well as the one-time carried-over cost to fix the brick veneer of the firehouse for $120,000;

— Transportation, or the village’s highway department, $296,600; 

— Culture and recreation at about $193,400.

This encompasses the parks budget, seniors recreation, and the village contribution to the Altamont Free Library; and

— Employee benefits at about $177,500. 

The village’s expected general-fund sources of revenue include:

— An estimated $585,00 from sales-tax revenue. Altamont received nearly $600,000 in COVID-affected revenue from the county in 2020, down from the $622,000 in sales tax it received in 2019;

— About $300,100 from property taxes;

— Approximately $139,000 from fire-protection services;

— About $38,500 in total state aid;

— $38,000 in cable franchise fees; and 

— $20,000 from fines and forfeited bail.  

The village will not take in enough revenue to cover its general-fund costs in 2021-22 and will have to use over $300,000 from its fund balance to make up the shortfall, but Hasbrouck notes that number includes the one-time, $120,000 improvement cost to the firehouse facade. 

Village employees are due a 2-percent raise next year, while salaries for Altamont’s elected officials are: justices, about $5,300; trustees, almost $3,200; and Mayor Dineen, approximately $5,300.

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